The leading Malaysian activist Maria Chin Abdullah is being held in solitary confinement in a windowless cell in an undisclosed detention centre. She has only a wooden board to sleep on, and has no blanket, and two lights are on in the 15-feet by 8-feet cell 24 hours a day.
Maria Chin, who was arrested on Friday, just before Saturday’s Bersih 5 demonstration, is being detained under the 2012 Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, which means she can be held for up to 28 days.
As she was arrested under SOSMA, the authorities were able to detain her for two days without legal representation and there was no remand hearing in her case.
“SOSMA SHOULD NOT be used for political dissent. You said it was for security in relation to terrorist threats,” lawyer Michelle Yesudas tweeted to the prime minister, Najib Razak, after Maria Chin’s arrest.
Maria Chin is also being investigated under Section 124C of Malaysia’s Penal Code for allegedly attempting to commit an activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy. If convicted, she could be sent to prison for 15 years.
A group of six international NGOs that had observers at the Bersih 5 rally have issued a statement calling on the Malaysian authorities to release Maria Chin immediately and drop all charges against the Bersih organisers and activists.
Maria Chin is the chairwoman of the Bersih 2.0 Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, which organised the Bersih 5 demonstration and previous rallies, including the 34-hour Bersih 4 protest last year, which brought 200,000 people out on to the streets on the first day.
Her lawyers and relatives were finally able to see her on Sunday when she was brought to Dang Wangi police station in the centre of Kuala Lumpur.
The Bersih leader’s eldest son, 23-year-old Azumin Yunus, says he fears for his mother’s health. He says she has hypertension and osteoarthritis.
Accompanied by the MP and lawyer N Surendran and the executive director of Lawyers for Liberty, Eric Paulsen, Azumin Yunus lodged a police report about Maria Chin’s detention and treatment.
Speaking outside the Dang Wangi police station, he said: “She seemed very strong willed, but she looked very tired. She’s basically in solitary confinement in a small, confined room. The lights are on the whole time so she can’t tell what time of the day it is. Her sleep is also messed up because of that.
“The place that she sleeps in is just a wooden board and that kind of treatment is extremely unfair and unjust to somebody like her who has done nothing wrong at all.
“We don’t even know when is the next time we are doing to see her or what is happening right now to her.
“Why is it that our mother is branded as a terrorist?”
Azumin Yunus said Maria Chin’s relatives were heartbroken over what was happening to her, “a person who fights for freedom, for fair and clean elections”.
The Bersih leader’s lawyers will be filing a writ of habeas corpus tomorrow (Tuesday) and Paulsen says he is also going to lodge a report with the United Nations about the government’s decision to detain Maria Chin using a law designed to fight terrorism.
He wants the police to explain why they have used SOSMA to detain her.
Amnesty International has named Maria Chin a prisoner of conscience and numerous solidarity vigils are taking place around Malaysia, including one at Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) in Kuala Lumpur.
The Bersih 2.0 committe members said they were calling on all Malaysians to join them in solidarity at 8 p.m. every night at Dataran Merdeka until Maria Chin is released.
“We need to send a strong collective message that Maria’s detention and inhumane treatment is an egregious breach of human rights and will not be accepted in a free and democratic society.
“We will not stop until Maria is free and SOSMA is repealed.”
A group called Women 4 Maria are calling for support for the women’s march they have organised for November 23 from Padang Merbok to the parliament building.
Tens of thousands of Malaysians braved threats of arrest and menaces from the pro-government Red Shirts and came out onto the streets of KL for Bersih 5. They demanded fair elections, a clean government, and the resignation of the prime minister, Najib Razak.
They also called for the strengthening of parliamentary democracy, the right to dissent, and empowerment for the states of Sabah and Sarawak.
Bersih 2.0 estimated the turnout to be 120,000. Local media reports put the attendance at 40,000.
The organisers had wanted to hold the rally in Dataran Merdeka, but the area was cordoned off. The authorities also blocked the route that demonstrators who gathered in Bangsar in the south of the city had intended to take to join the main rally in the city centre.
During the afternoon, the organisers decided to change the rally venue and protesters gathered at KLCC next to the Petronas Twin Towers. There were rousing speeches by the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (pictured below) and the former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
“We no longer live under democracy but kleptocracy, a nation ruled by thieves,” the 91-year-old Mahathir told protesters, to resounding cheers.
“The time has come for us to topple this cruel regime. Najib is no longer suitable to be the prime minister. He is abusing the law.”
This is a big turnaround for Mahathir, who banned street protests and assemblies during his 22 years as prime minister, but now calls on Malaysians to attend the Bersih rallies. He was even present at tonight’s vigil at Dataran Merdeka with his wife Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali, who was also at Bersih 5.
Mahathir’s daughter Marina also spoke at Saturday’s rally along with the president of Malaysia’s National Human Rights Society (HAKAM), Ambiga Sreenevasan, and the opposition MP Nurul Izzah Anwar, who is vice-president of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party or PKR) and daughter of the jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Husam Musa from the Islamic breakaway party Amanah also addressed the crowd.
In a statement issued after the rally, the Bersih 2.0 committee said: “The coming together of Malaysians from all ethnic, religious, regional and socio-economic backgrounds in Bersih 5 shows that institutional reforms and Najib’s resignation are a growing Malaysian consensus that no institutions, parties, or groups can suppress.”
The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), Fortify Rights, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) said that, to date, four Bersih organising committee members and more than twenty pro-Bersih supporters were facing a range of criminal charges.
“We consider these arrests to be violations of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”
The NGOs said the authorities should return all items confiscated from the Bersih offices and stop making further arbitrary arrests in connection with Bersih events.
In the afternoon of November 18, the day before the Bersih 5 rally, the authorities raided the Bersih office and arrested Maria Chin and the Bersih 2.0 secretariat manager, Mandeep Singh.
During the raid computers, other office equipment, and documents, including financial and payroll records, were seized.
Maria Chin’s arrest is the first case in which the Malaysian authorities have used SOSMA against a civil society representative.
The Bersih observers said they were alarmed at the conditions of detention of Maria Chin and the use of SOSMA to detain her.
“We call on the government of Malaysia to release her immediately. We believe that SOSMA is a law that violates human rights as it allows incommunicado detention for up to 48 hours, and detention without charge or judicial review for up to 28 days.
“We strongly urge the government of Malaysia to repeal SOSMA or substantially amend it so that it would be in compliance with international law and standards.”
During debates in parliament about SOSMA, the government asserted that the purpose of the law was to protect peoples’ security, the observers said.
“However, the authorities are instead using it to prevent the exercise of fundamental human rights, constituting an abuse of law.”
A total of 15 activists, civil society leaders, and politicians were arrested during “Ops Bersih” on Friday and Saturday. They included Bersih 2.0 steering committee Hishamuddin Rais, graphic artist Fahmi Reza, assemblyman Howard Lee Chuan, the PKR vice-president and MP for Batu, Chua Tian Chang, better known as Tian Chua, and PKR MP Zuraida Kamaruddin.
Zuraida (left) and Tian Chua.
The leader of the pro-government Red Shirts, Jamal Yunos, was also arrested on Friday along with Red Shirt activist Razali Zakaria and Ariffin Abu Bakar from the Black Shirts.
Jamal had been quoted as saying “Blood will be paid with blood” after being punched in the nose during a scuffle between police and the Red Shirts just over a week ago.
Excluding Maria Chin, all the other Bersih activists detained on Friday and Saturday have since been released. Jamal was remanded in custody.
Maria Chin, who has three sons in college, has been a long-time campaigner, initially focused on women’s rights. Her husband, Yunus Ali, was an also an ardent activist who fled Malaysia in the 1970s, went to Lebanon, and joined the Palestine Liberation Army. Yunus later spent time in London, then returned to Malaysia. He was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1987 during the infamous Ops Lalang. He died of kidney failure in 2010.
Cartoon by Zunar